Interview with Douglas Hunter
I’m a freelance writer, author, illustrator and a doctoral candidate in history at York University. I have a long background as a journalist and as an author, so the process of writing and research doesn’t really feel that different to me, in an academic environment.
My dissertation is working in the area of cryptohistory and New World discovery narratives.
Why it’s interesting is that cryptohistory is fringe history, it tends to be written by amateurs. In one sense, it’s out of the fringe of accepted knowledge, but it also is very much at the centre of public history and popular history. Probably much more popular in some of these ideas than conventional, Columbian discovery narratives, or Viking discovery narratives.
Why it’s interesting is, it speaks a lot to racial conceptions, ethnic conceptions of who got here first and who has entitlement to land. And in the process of these narratives, a lot of indigenous materials, pictographs, petroglyphs are fairly aggressively reinterpreted as actual evidence of, say, Vikings getting here first, or Phoenicians getting here first. So it denies cultural materials that actually belong to indigenous people.
My hope for the doctoral research is that it makes us understand that in the areas of cryptohistory, fringe history, because of the sheer popularity of it, that there are consequences to thinking really, really outside the box.
This extreme popular history is actually looked at, not so much for the content of it, which is really dismissed pretty aggressively, but the consequences of it.
The processes as to how it’s formulated, and how the public absorbs this very enthusiastically, means they develop certain conceptions of indigenous rights, indigenous materials. It’s really actually important when people start deciding that other people got here first, and therefore maybe these land claims aren’t legitimate. That’s a real consequence of interpreting materials.
I think one of the things you can bring to the role of public intellectual when you’re working in the historical eras is to try to put context on contemporary issues, and to remind people of precedence—process of historiographical thought—that these ideas we have around right now are really not that new. We were thinking like this in the 1920s; or I can show you in the 1850s when these concepts were actually very important to people. So in a public marketplace of ideas, and the two-minute newsfeed, we lose the past very quickly. Yesterday is gone and we just kind of move on, and so a historian’s role is to push those boundaries back, and keep the past alive in what our present ideas are.
Being awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Taylor Fellowship, for me, was a delightful and really unexpected cap on a decision to go back to school, literally after 30 years, and devote myself to a particular area of research, uninterrupted, for a several-year span.
I simply wouldn’t be able to do that without the combination of the Vanier scholarship and the Taylor fellowship.